Fiction: The Sundial
By Rosemary Twomey
I pierce the damp packed earth in the back garden with my spade. The sound of the blade cutting through the rootbound flower bed, and the musty smell of soil coming to the surface is my reward.
I flip the shovel full of dull brown dirt to reveal what’s in the clump. Dry white roots and a bleached piece of red clay. I pluck the clay out with my gloved hand and examine it. I toss it into the small pile forming behind me.
My body is immune to digging pains from my two-month field school in Kincardine. Professor. Geller picked three fourth-year students to accompany her on an excavation and I got picked second. My boyfriend, Mark, got picked first.
The house towers over me. It’s a three-story red brick structure. I call it a structure because it hasn’t been a home for a long time. My Great Aunt Mary lived here for 40 years until she had to move to a nursing home when someone found her yelling in the field across the road. No one could make out what she was yelling about but when she was asked by a passer-by where she lived, she couldn’t answer. Somehow they figured out she lived across the street and was concerned when they saw no one lived with her. The car in the driveway had 4 flat tires and hadn’t been used in years.
Mary was only 60 when she developed dementia and the doctors racked it up to too much drinking, smoking, and solitude. Mary’s lifestyle was more romantic than that though. Her drinking was out of a crystal decanter set and her smoking, a long silver cigarette holder.
Mary’s solitude was a choice. She was the youngest of my grandma’s 5 siblings and wanted better than what she grew up in. One weekend a man from Goderich had attended the junior farmer dance and granted Mary entry into his affluent and liberal family. She fit, with her sleek blonde hair and perfectly turned up nose. She married and moved with him to his estate when she was 18 and he was 25. He died at 30 in a car accident.
Mary never went home. She was determined to live the life she had been promised, even if it meant loneliness and poverty in a house big enough for 10.
I was excited when my mom had told me we were in charge of cleaning the gardens before the house sold. I had never been here before but the estate was infamous. At Christmas dinners and birthdays my extended family had ranted about the size of the property and the grandeur gardens. The description was often followed by “Who the hell does Mary think she is?” and “She turns her nose up at how we live, that’s why she kept Darren’s family home.”
When we pulled up to the property the first thing I noticed was the overgrown weeds that choked out what seems to have been swimming pool-sized gardens scattered across the lawns.
I work on the garden running along the rusted wrought iron fence. My mom had the garden center in town drop off some privet shrubs she wants planted along the property line. I begin to dig the holes for them. There’s a crunching sound coming from the hole each time my blade strikes. Pale yellow tubers are nestled in the mounds of earth I remove. I sift them out of the dirt and inspect them. They’re large and knobby and green blades of foliage sprout from the top.
I think it’s a bulb of some kind. A spring flower that has been planted too deep to be able to break through the surface. I continue digging along the fence and with every shovel full, a few bulbs tumble out.
“I’m almost ready for lunch,” I hear my mom call from behind me. I turn to face her. She stands on the old peeling paint porch, her knees muddy and her blonde gray hair swirled into a bun on the top of her head.
“Come see this.”
She trots over, taking off her gloves to signal she’s on a break. “What is it?”
“Look at all these. There are hundreds all along the fence.”
Mom picks up one of the tubers by its sprout. “Huh, they’re dahlias.”
“But they never came up. I think they were planted too deep.”
Mom leans down and brushes away some soil from my pile. She picks up one that has bulbous growths on it. It looked like it’s breaking in half.
“These are multipliers,” mom says. “They split under the surface so that there’s more every year.”
“But they were buried too deep.”
“Yeah, that’s a shame.”
Mom brushes off her hands and looks around the property. “You’ve done well back here. The front is still a mess.”
I look at the pial of stunted flowers. “We should donate these, or replant them at least.”
“Alison, there are hundreds. Plus spring is over. If we plant them now they won't bloom.”
I shrug. It seems like a waste. Someone had planted dozens of beautiful plants and unknowingly suffocated them.
“I’m gonna go get pizza. Do you want cheese?”
“Sure,” I say, and continue digging.
I hear mom’s car pull away as I finish digging the fourth hole for the shrub. My shovel hits something solid and then breaks through to the soil. I reach in and pull out a few shards of white china. I notice an edge with small purple flowers painted on it and an indent in the center where the base of a teacup would sit. I remove the rest of the saucer from the hole and toss them in the pile.
Pottery is my specialty. I had done my thesis research on Neolithic ceramics from the Levant. I was offered a spot on the excavation team Professor Geller is taking with her on a dig this coming year. Moving to Turkey to do research made my stomach tilt.
Mark and I moved in together last Fall. He had started his masters and I was finishing my final year of school. I hadn’t planned on getting this position, or at least that’s what I told him when I got the invitation.
“That’s a great opportunity, but like, kinda unrealistic,” he said.
“I mean, your life is here. Why would you move to Turkey?”
“You went to Israel for 8 months.”
“Yeah, 8 months. Not a year.”
“Do you not think I should go?”
“Well, If you go then our lives change. You can’t expect me to be happy about this.”
I puncture the lawn with my spade. The shrubs are harder to maneuver into the holes than I expected and I get a faceful of leaves.
If I go to Turkey I leave Mark. I love Mark. He told me he could get me a research position with one of the professors he knows in Toronto but I don’t think he has that kind of leverage. Mark works hard but nothing much comes of his schemes.
I pack the earth around the base of the privet shrub. It’s leafy, vibrant kelly green, and unafraid to be noticed. I wish I was as lucky.
“Excuse me,” a man calls out from behind me.
I whip my head around. “Hello,” I say unsure.
“Hi, My name is Dave Schneider.”
Dave Scheider approaches me. He shakes my hand.
“I was told by my friend, Peter Mirelli, that you’re selling this estate?”
“Yes, well, not me. My great aunt is. I’m just clearing out the gardens with my mom.”
I keep one hand on my shovel.
Dave is a round man with soft features. His eyebrows are wiry and grey, and his glasses look older than me. He has sausage fingers that are being choked by his wedding ring and what appears to be a school ring.
“I’ve been driving past this place for years and when Peter told me it was being sold I knew I had to come introduce myself.”
I look at the old partially dilapidated house staring down at us.
“Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of say in who buys the house.”
“That’s alright, I just wanted to pop in and see the place. May I take a peek at the sundial?”
“The what?” I ask, confused.
“The sundial. Peter is the neighbour,” he says pointing at a house in the distance. “He told me about the sundial that’s on the property. May I take a look?”
“Um, okay, but I don’t know where it is.”
“We will find it. It’s probably somewhere where it can get full sun all day.”
The backyard is bigger than a football field broken up with two ponds, stone steps, and flagstone patios. We walk the perimeter and then make our way down the center.
“I’m a horologist by trade,” Dave says. He can tell by the look on my face I don’t know what that is. “I make and study clocks. A sundial is an outdoor clock that uses the angle of the sun to produce a shadow and read the time. Do you know if your aunt made it?”
“I doubt it. She moved here with her husband and it had been his family’s home since the 1800s.”
We weave through the yard. Dave moves slowly admiring the old gardens and making comments like “Wow, I love all the quirks of this place.”
I don’t think he believed that I have no say in who Mary sells to.
“Ah, here it is,” he announces jubilantly.
On the ground lay an old bronze rectangle that blends in with the rich colored dirt surrounding it. In a semi-circle lay 12 hexagonal plates, each with intricate carvings and grass growing over them.
“See here, you stand on the rectangle and your shadow tells you the hour.”
Dave stands on the rectangle and points at his shadow which is partway between 2 and 3.
“You try,” he says.
I step onto the bronze and my shadow appears in the same position.
“That’s pretty cool.”
Sundials are very hard to make. It’s all about geometry. I bet it took whoever made this weeks to find the perfect position.”
“Have you seen the quote?” he asks.
“No, is there one?”
“Oh yes mam, every sundial has one. The maker typically hides it somewhere either on it or close by.”
“Oh, I don’t see one on any of the plates.”
“No no, it’s too obvious to put it right in plain sight.”
Dave walks around the dial for a few moments until he finds a small plaque just above the 12.
“Oh, it’s been covered up by the grass.” He grabs a fist full and rips it out from around the borders of the bronze. “It was made by Edmund J. Thompson in 1886. The quote reads, Our last hour is hidden from us so that we watch them all. Enjoy each one.”
I think about Mary, alone in this house since she was 23. She clung to the life she thought was idyllic. I don’t want to cling to what I know. I have to use all my hours.
Rosemary Twomey is a writer and marketer based out of Toronto. She fell in love with character writing and development during her time studying Professional Writing at the University of Toronto. She loves exploring relationships, expectations, and interactions between characters and creating painfully realistic situations that readers can relate to.